The brazen daylight hatchet attack on four New York police officers by a self-radicalized Islamic extremist is raising troubling questions about whether terror networks in the Middle East are successfully fomenting a sort of proxy offensive inside the US, using radicalized Americans.
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton pegged Zale Thompson’s attack, which injured two officers before Mr. Thompson was killed, as an “act of terror.”
The timing of the attack, which came just days after an attack on the Canadian parliament by another so-called “lone wolf” terrorist, is conspicuous, primarily as it comes when the Al Qaeda splinter group Islamic State is reportedly having success recruiting Westerners to its offensive.
The group has vowed to attack the US homeland, raising fears primarily among conservatives that a porous southern border could be a dangerous entrée for terrorists.
But more recent events indicate that the likelihood is higher for someone like Thompson, who had never before been in trouble with the law, to suddenly attack US targets. Along with the attack in Canada, which killed a soldier, British and Australian authorities have within the last month unraveled terror attack conspiracies, including a domestic beheading plot.
“America’s military is strong abroad, but they have never faced an internal mass revolt,” Thompson wrote recently on Facebook. “They are weaker at home. We are scattered and decentralized, we can use this as an advantage.”
In its latest threat assessment, before Islamic State rose to prominence in Iraq and Syria, the FBI didn’t list homegrown jihad terror as a threat vector inside the US.
The agency said the omission came down to how it and the Central Intelligence Agency parse the nature of foreign threats. Critics at the time noted that the most serious jihadi attacks in the US had come from self-radicalized Americans, including Nidal Hasan, the convicted Fort Hood attacker.
Now, authorities are increasingly concerned that a series of attacks and plots are at the very least inspired, even loosely coordinated, to strike outside the Middle East.
“The series of episodes over just the last four weeks is raising new fears about the capacity of extremists who call themselves the Islamic State to catalyze so-called lone-wolf attacks, conceived and carried out by individuals or small groups around the Western world who may have little or no connection to the Islamic State,” writes David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times.
Thompson was described by police late Friday as a self-radicalized Muslim convert who was inspired by stateless foreign terror organizations, but who ultimately acted on his own volition and initiative.
John Miller, one of New York’s counterterror investigators, told the media that Thompson had recently checked out websites tangential to the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and Al Shabab, the militant Islamist group headquartered in Somalia.
“What emerged was a portrait of a man officials described as an out of work recluse who spent hours … on the computer browsing radical websites” while occasionally leaving comments on Facebook that “disparaged whites and Christians,” write Michael Schwirtz and William Rashbaum, also in the New York Times.
To be sure, some reactions to the attack raised doubts about whether Thompson's violent act really qualifies as an act of terror. "For goodness sake, a depressed, reclusive convert to Islam launching a solo attack with a hatchet is not terrorism," writes Twitter user Mel Thomas.
The attack happened as the four rookie officers were posing for a photo on the street.
Thompson’s sudden attack managed to strike one officer in the head and another in the arm before the officers drew their guns and fired. A bystander was hit in the back by a stray bullet, and is expected to recover. Police recovered an 18-inch hatchet at the scene.